Release Date: Feb 22nd
Box Office: $7,562,164
This post comes from one of my very best friends, Dr Scott Jeffrey. I met him at college and have known him ever since. He’s a stand up comedian, has a PhD and is an all round good guy. This piece was first posted on his movie blog Film Dribble Film Dribble, then also check out his blog about everything else at Nth Mind
When we think of the so-called ‘movie brats’ of the New Hollywood it’s usually to indicate the way in which heavyweight directors of the 1970s (Coppolla, Scorsese, Spielberg etc.) grew up absorbing movies like sponges, so that by the time they became film-makers themselves they were able to put new spins on old genres, injecting European art-house sensibility into tired Hollywood tropes. However, among the directors who emerged in this period there are many who, while surely ‘movie brats’ (and while often more financially successful), rarely get the same credit as their more artistically respectable contemporaries.
John Landis is one such director. Perhaps because he largely worked in comedy (never a genre to get the respect it deserves) or perhaps because his career after Coming to America(1988) has never achieved the glorious heights of the winning streak begun with National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and then continuing through The Blues Brothers (1980), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Trading Places (1983) and ¡Three Amigos! (1986). Are these perfect films? Shit, no. Are they entertaining movies? Hells, yes! Did the same director later go on to make Blues Brothers 2000? Yes, hush now child…
Landis released two films in 1985, the broad spy-comedy Spies like Us, with regular collaborators Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase, and Into the Night, which remains a somewhat forgotten oddity in the Landis oeuvre. Which is a pity, because it’s not a bad film. It’s not a great film either but it still bares the marks of the Landis glory days- it’s never boring. There’s always some bit of business going on somewhere. In fact, Into the Night is like distilled Landis, exhibiting all that is best and worst about his movies.
The auteurs of the New Hollywood get credit for the reinventions of old genres, but Landis was playing that same game. Approaching each of his films through a cynical, wiseass, antiauthoritarian comic sensibility (hence the near-constant presence of various early Saturday Night Live alumni)as much a part of the ‘70s countercultural worldview as the paranoia and existential angst on display in the more serious films of the period, Landis also injects old genres with new piss and vinegar. Horror in American Werewolf, the college/coming-of-age movie in Animal House, the musical in Blues Brothers, and the gangster/caper with Into the Night.
Into the Night doesn’t quite work. One issue noted by critics at the time was that Landis’s penchant for inserting other film-makers into his movies becomes overly distracting here (cameos include American Werewolf’s make-up artists Rick Baker, Paul Bartel, director of Eating Raoul (1982), David Cronenberg, Jaws co-writer carl Gottleib and Jim Henson, among many others). Nor does the tome quite balance out. Where in America Werewolf the juxtaposition between scares and laughs created something bigger than the sum of its parts, in Into the Night the same approach is jarring. Moments of broad comedy like four gangsters eating snacks on the sofa sit uneasily next to scenes of those same four gangsters drowning a woman in the sea and leaving her lifeless body on the shore.
Oddly enough, Landis’s fellow movie-brat and bona-fide auteur, Martin Scorsese released After Hours this same year, which in many ways is a better, New York version of the same essential premise- average Joe is sucked into night-time city nightmare by enigmatic, spontaneous woman. In fairness, this was a popular trope in the 1980s (see also Something Wild, whose director Jonathan Demme also manages a cameo in Landis’s film). However, where Scorsese goes for all-out surrealist nightmare, Landis is constrained by the rules of the genre. Only he’s not sure what genre it is. Existential road movie? SNL style comedy? Hitchcockian thriller? When, towards the end, Jeff Goldblum’s character asks a gangster holding a gun to Michelle Pfeiffer’s head, “What’s wrong with my life? Why can’t I sleep?” – to which the gangster replies by blowing his own brains out, covering Pfeiffer’s face with blood – it feels like it’s come in from another movie, maybe an earlier, darker version of the script.
That said, the whole thing zips along at a lively pace, the two leads are never less than a pleasure to look at, and Landis is clearly trying so hard to entertain you that it’s a difficult film to dislike. A weird, odd film, to be sure, but a million, thankful miles from Blues Brothers 2000. And for that, we should be grateful.